I’ve read three books, 2 fiction, one non-fiction, in the last month (take a bit) about Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Coal Region and I’ve been thinking a lot about the way former coal mining communities are represented in literature.
First, the non-fiction book was Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire by David DeKok. DeKok was a reporter for The News-Item in Shamokin and spent 8 years covering the complicated, convuluted story of Centralia. The book is intense, extensive and seriously engaging. DeKok lays out the 25 year struggle with the mine fire and the push and pull between the divided town and the state and federal governments. Even though the fire started in 1962, it wasn’t really taken all that seriously until early ’80s, when the mine fire gases were appearing in large quantities in people’s homes and basements. To say the least, the Centralia mine fire was a messy, fucked up situation that really didn’t have a good solution to it. DeKok does an excellent job of taking a very twisted situation and making it understandable. In doing this, one can’t but help utterly baffled at the bullshit that the town of Centralia had to put up with before the government got around to doing something.
I mention the non-fiction book first, because it’s, well, non-fiction. Nothing is embellished for the sake of entertainment or enjoyment for the reader. It is a straight forward account of the Centralia mine fire and not only is it baffling, it is a really good read.
The two fiction books I’ve finished recently were Now You See It: Stories from Cokesville, Pennsylvania by Bathseeba Monk and Coal Run by Tawni O’Dell.
Monk’s book was okay and of the three books, by far my least favorite. I liked the format, since I often use it myself (short stories that tell a larger story about place), her writing and quite a few of the characters. I wasn’t so taken with the end, since it seemed sort of tacked on to the rest of the stories. I hate the bit about the town exploding (see below). Generally, I was entertained by the book but felt sort of “whatever” about it once I finished it.
O’Dell’s book, which I finished in three days, had me by the figurative balls 2 pages in. Her writing is eloquent and sucks one into the story so intensely that you absolutely cannot stop reading. I fell in love, intensely, (this is probably a personal thing too) with the narrator, the great Ivan Z., the town’s fallen football star and current alcoholic deputy. The story unfolds in delicious little pieces and, as I said before, sucks you until you absolutely must finish the damn book TONIGHT. I really liked the characters, all of them, even the “bad guys”. Part of me wishes I wrote the book.
That said, I’ve noticed something really amusing about these town books and a short story that I’ve been working on that is set in a PA coal town. There are a few things that a story set in a Pennsylvania coal town must have in order to make the story work and to contextualize the place. I swear to god, anyone that’s written about a PA coal town must mention these things. I know this, because that story of mine is hinged on these things. They are as followed:
1. You must mention a mine fire that wiped out a town and it must cling to a handful of truth, which varies from story to story. In Coal Run, the main character’s hometown is evacuated and leveled like Centralia. In Now You See It, Cokesville’s ultimate demise was when the mine fire that burned in the culm dumps out side of town reached a natural gas pipe line, exploded (there was natural gas pipeline that ran along one of the coal veins that the mine fire was in) and destroyed the entire town. In the fiction story I’ve been working on, the characters pass by a place that is suggested to be Centralia while coming home from a funeral. Which leads me to my next point.
2. Someone must die in an occupational accident, since they are coal miners. It can be more than one person but someone always has to die in a coal mining accident. Coal Run starts with a massive explosion that shakes the entire town, starts the stated mine fire and kills 100 of the men. In Now You See It, the narrator’s father dives/falls into a vat of molten steel (okay okay not coal but occupationally related, so close enough) and get delivered to the funeral home as a 150 pound steel ingot. In the story that I’ve been working on, the narrator’s husband’s best friend is killed in a mine explosion.
3. There is always football. Coal Run‘s narrator is a fallen star football player, who’s life is changed by a freak accident a coal breaker. Football isn’t just a sport in that place, it’s a way of life. Bonus points for mention of local high school football. A serious nod if you can work in JoePa and Penn State; even better if you can get in a state professional team.
4. There is always excessive drinking. Beer, whiskey and sometimes vodka.
5. Because of this excessive drinking, there is stupidity fueled violence.
6. There are always big trucks and cars.
7. The women are as tough as the men.
There are a few other small things that link the two books I just finished reading together with the short story I’ve been working on but those are the major points that let someone know what place they are in when they are reading. Part of me wonders if it’s cliche or if it’s something that is needed to explain that place. It’s like they belong to this weird world of close-to-truth, pulpish genre of books about the fallen coal industry in PA. It makes that type of place really sexy in a way that is far from the truth. While they all explore the complexities of class, they romanticize the life that comes with living in such a place.
Which is why I am glad that I sandwiched DeKok’s book with Monk and O’Dells’. He narrates the seriously harsh reality of living in such conditions and while the other books mean to point out to the reader the ugliness, no one really wants the characters in a fiction book to have face the type of nasty bureaucracy that Centralia faced. They want everything wrapped up in a sexy, coal dust covered package with a nice cover design, in order to entertain themselves for a few hours. Truth in a fiction book, like in most of the arts, is a really relative term.
Honestly, I’m kind of embarrassed at my story’s reliance on those points above to explain the complexities of living with coal mining. I was rolling around the idea of posting it here, since it’s been pretty time consuming and I kinda liked it and now I think I might be too embarrassed about my reliance on the points above to really want anyone else to read it.
There was also something else I noticed as I read O’Dell’s and Monk’s bios on the back flap of their books. They both, after moving far and away from Pennsylvania, came back to it, to the place they clearly were much more interested in escaping. Characters in their books do the same. What is it about some Pennsylvanians that they just can’t stay the fuck away from the place they were raised? It is obvious that I feel it too and I want to know what that means, what’s the pull back to such a place mean?
A few Mondays ago, I watched Harlan County U.S.A., a documentary directed by Barbara Kopple. Released in 1978 and filmed between 1973 and 76, it is a powerful chronicle of a coal miner’s strike in Kentucky. 180 miners fought against Duke Power Company for about a year to obtain rights like health benefits, sick days, running water and toilets in their company owned homes and better pay. Kopple lets the people tell their story of the strike, through their actions and words and also uses the music of the area, bluegrass and country, to convey their lives.
It’s a really powerful and moving film. The story that’s told is complex but the film does a good job of telling it. It is strange to sit and watch and to remind one’s self that what the miners and their families were being put through weren’t eradicated by contemporary life or the massive boom in the economy post WWII. I had to constantly remind myself that it was filmed in 1973, not 1930. Kopple makes sure that you side with the miners
That said, I keep up with “local” news from where I grew up and where my family still resides. In 2006, a miner was killed at R&D Coal Mine outside of Tremont, PA. There have been articles in all three local news sources about the owner, mine supervisor and another miner being charged with involuntary man slaughter in the death of the miner</a>, which is rare for anyone to be charged with anything following a mining accident.
In mid August, an image of what some described as the Virgin Mary appeared on a garage door on Lewis street, a narrow cracked alley way, in Minersville, PA. Hundreds of people came to see her, pray and bless various religious objects.
I drove to Minersville on August 29th and photographed the entire time she was “there”, about 45 minutes. She slowly moved up the garage door as the sun set.
Before she arrived, the crowd of about 150 people buzzed and chatted quietly. One woman standing close to me passed around digital prints from the Rite-Aid up the street, noting the “supernatural” fog in the photos. Of it, she said “Digital cameras capture the energy around her better than film. I don’t know what it is but they do.” I glanced over her shoulder to notice the way the dirt on her camera lens was rendered in the photos. In the midst of the crowd whispering and snapping photos, I turned to the house across the street, noticed a large, shiny statue of the Blessed Mother in the second floor window and noted how the sunlight hit her just perfectly. I smiled to myself as I turned my eyes back to the crowd and to my ground glass.